Saturday marks Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the solemnest day of the Jewish Year and, at least in Israel, the most widely observed.
Israel shuts down totally on Yom Kippur. No transportation; no TV, radio, or activity on websites; no stores, cinemas, or restaurants open. Kids exploit the utter stillness of the roads to cavort on them on bicycles.
Observant Jews pray three times a day on regular days; on Sabbaths and sacred holidays, four times; only on Yom Kippur, five times. And synagogues are packed to overflowing on Yom Kippur because the less-observant come to them too. Some come to synagogue only on this one day; some only for two days out of the year—Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
Yom Kippur is the culmination of the ten Days of Awe that begin with Rosh Hashanah, the New Year. Its origin is in Leviticus 16:29-30:
in the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, ye shall afflict your souls, and do not work at all…
For on that day shall the priest make an atonement for you, to cleanse you, that ye may be clean from all your sins before the Lord.
On the physical level, affliction takes the form of a fast, a 25-hour abstinence from all food and drink. Close to two-thirds of Israeli Jews, including even some who never go to synagogue, observe the fast. Considering that the weather from mid-September to mid-October (when Yom Kippur can fall) usually remains hot and dry, going 25 hours without even water can be a real affliction. Each year on Yom Kippur dozens of people, often elderly, get rushed to hospitals in ambulances for dehydration.
And on the spiritual level, affliction means Vidui—confession of sins before God, while undertaking to desist from them as the year begins. The afternoon prayer service includes a reading of the Book of Jonah, whose essence is God’s forgiveness of those who repent.
Yom Kippur ends, finally, with a fast-breaking meal, and an exhilarating sense—in Israel, interwoven with a special atmosphere of early autumn—of a new beginning.
Adding to the solemnity of this year’s Yom Kippur is the fact that it marks 40 years since the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War, the most traumatic event in Israeli history.
On the morning of October 6, 1973, Chief of Staff David Elazar met with Prime Minister Golda Meir and Defense Minister Moshe Dayan to warn that the Egyptian and Syrian armies were about to attack Israel. It was Yom Kippur, the attack timed for the day when the Jewish state was most vulnerable.
Elazar urged a preemptive air strike. But he was overruled by Meir and Dayan, who were under pressure from U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger not to preempt. The result, in the experiential world of Israelis, was that in the afternoon an eerie, totally unexpected siren sounded for a military call-up. It was the holiest day of the year, but Israel was at war.
Because of the failure to preempt, the war began disastrously. Egyptian forces crossed the Suez Canal and overran Israeli positions in the Sinai. Syrian forces surged through the Golan Heights and advanced toward the Sea of Galilee. Dayan, on the second day of the war, said Israel’s end was imminent.
Israel, with the help of a massive U.S. airlift, turned the tide and ended up routing both the Egyptian and Syrian armies. But that was not before it had lost almost 2700 soldiers—a stunning total for a country whose population then stood at three million. In the wake of the war came national shock and depression, political upheaval—and a bitter debate to this very day about just whose blunders and misconceptions were responsible for the near-catastrophe.
A lot has changed since then: no more attacks by Arab armies; Islamic terror organizations, and non-Arab Iran, replacing them as the main foes; huge population, economic, and technological growth. Israel at Yom Kippur 2013 (5774 on the Jewish calendar) is both different and the same, still haunted by the same ghosts of a traumatic war, still fundamentally believing in its ability to tackle all challenges.
From this year’s immersion in introspection, commemoration, and prayer—well aware that our region remains in the grip of fury and strife—we’ll emerge renewed, basically unified, and prepared for all.